Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Future Ain't What it Used To Be: Murals into the 21st C.

This post is an add-on to my previous post regarding the death of large scale painting. The answer to the question of who is carrying the art into the twenty-first century century is, of course, street artists. The incredible profusion and ingenious variety of so-called graffiti art is familiar to anyone who lives in an urban area.

Here are some of my favorite artists who have contributed to the scene, in no particular order. This first video clip is a great example of how the art has been shifted from the sponsorship of monarchies and governments to sponsorship by galleries and corporations. Artist Jon Burgerman, of Nottingham UK, was commissioned by AOL to produce a large scale piece for their new corporate offices in Astor Place, Manhattan. It's a great concept, beautifully rendered, wherein the employees of the company are directly involved in the completion of the mural (shout out to my wife, who was one of them!).

Check out more of his work on his website.

The subversive element is still alive and well too, with artists producing work in the dead of night or away from the watchful eyes of the law. A cross between prank and political commentary, street art can be some of the most inspiring work around.

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Blek le Rat has been producing amazing work for about three decades, and has inspired a host of new talent to take their work to the public arena. The Independent in the UK ran a great article regarding Blek's work, and of course it's relationship to the work of Banksy (whom I haven't even gotten to on this post), who has been made even more famous by his new movie. The article goes on to speak about Blek's motivation and introduction into the world of street art:

Studying architecture, he explains, taught him how to understand an urban landscape and how to see the space around him. This, combined with the "illumination" that came with discovering a new world of politics and sociological awareness, and his earlier studies in lithography and painting, made street art an obvious outlet for his talents: and so, in 1981, he began to combine his skills, to express his thoughts and create art for the masses.
 Weburbanist says of Blek's work
One of the main sources of Banksy’s inspiration, Blek le Rat is an old-school French street artist who’s been stenciling since the early 80s. Blek’s inspiration came from a trip to NYC in 1971; he saw the graffiti there and loved it, but didn’t want to imitate their style. When he returned to Paris he began painting on walls, and the rest is history. Blek’s stencils cover a variety of subjects, but his trademark is stenciled rats. They’ve adorned walls from Paris to South America, with plenty of stops between. Blek has been involved in community art projects and his work has been included in many books about graffiti history.
Rotterdam artist elpussycat uses light itself as the medium for these playful images. Documentation is clearly a major aspect of street art, where the work is often meant to be temporary or is destroyed. Without a photograph to prove it's existence, who's to say it ever happened? Artist Andy Goldsworthy uses photography in a very self-conscious way to record his meditative and ephemeral work, which creates a tension: what is he, photographer or sculptor? I find that, in his case, photography itself occasionally gets in the way of my appreciation of the artwork: It's as if Goldsworthy creates the piece specifically for the camera lens. Elpussycat plays with that notion and pushes it further: There is no art, in effect, but the photograph.

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Along the same lines, one of the most exciting progressions in traditional street art has to be the work of DAIM (thanks to Jeff Pollastro for this link). I can only shake my head in awe when I think of the possibilities when combining digital and traditional media, and DAIM is consistently at the forefront.

The ridiculously talented BLU, from Bologna is a great example of the insane passion for large scale murals that some of these artists possess. Limiting himself to the traditional tools of brushes and rollers, and a limited palette of black plus one or two colors, he produces intensely striking work of remarkable originality. He also has one of the best websites I've ever seen. Check it and his work out here. BLU has a collection of the sketches he uses as preparation for his murals for sale at studiocromie.

Below is his massive mural of a shark composed of countless $100 bills, as seen on Colectiva's blog.

Here's one he did in Buenos Aires, Argentina, courtesy of b-uncut:

I posted a link previously on this blog's Facebook page of his time lapse street mural project BIG BANG BIG BOOM, but here it is again in all it's glorious madness:

Another one of my faves is Mariusz Waras, from Poland. He's been furiously creating and archiving street art for the last 15 years under the banner of m-city, using urban architecture as his main inspiration for outstanding work. Please look at his site for an idea of the scale and breadth of his work...

Tabas, from France, has been producing playful large-scale wall art in and around Marseilles for years. Starting out as a traditional street artist, he has since branched into print & design, starting his own company, Tabasstudio.

Whether through gallery and corporate promotion, public discourse and political activism, or graphic and product design, traditional street art has rippled out to affect modern culture in ways as diverse and inventive as the work of the artists themselves.

This list is by no means exhaustive and could (and will in a future post) go on and on, but that should provide enough food for thought for now, and reassurance that the art of the mural is clearly alive and well!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Day the Murals Died

"The value of the Old Masters is enormous if we look upon their works as a superb expression of their age; more valuable still if they inspire modern painters to try and express their own age with the same power; but they are disastrous if we only try to mimic them." Frank Brangwyn [from the preface of The History of Painting by Haldane MacFall].

Wait, you mean I actually have to make up my own stuff? That sounds a lot like work. I prefer to just rip off the old-timers while they're out coffin-shopping and having their prostates examined, it's much more fun. On that note, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes is hardly in a position to do anything about it and his work is really good, so let's start with him. I posted some more images of his work here.

I find it strange that the chapter in art history of fresco painting and large decorative murals, which for many centuries were considered among the highest possible achievements of an artist's career, became practically a blank page in the Nineteenth Century framed only by the works of two giants, Eugene Délacroix and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Lyon, 1824 - Paris, 1898). They pretty much carried the torch for mural painting through the Nineteenth Century.

From that time on, whether by choice or necessity, those artists we associate with artistic progress worked on a small scale. Even Monet's Nymphéas at the famous Orangerie Museum in Paris fails to fall, strictly speaking, into the category of mural painting. The art of the large decorative fresco had more or less ended.

All the more strange when you consider how much construction was going on during the latter part of the nineteenth Century on both sides of the Atlantic. Great attention was given to public architecture. I'm thinking of train stations and libraries in particular, which logically should have provided space for fresh and ambitious large-scale paintings. Yet when those works exist, their subjects and execution are trite at best, having been entrusted to the most anemic of the rear-guard academic painters, or the more timid of the avant-garde who could be trusted to dilute their vision into socially acceptable norms.

I know; that sounds mean. There are exceptions of course, and one was the German painter Hans von Marées, who decorated the Stazione Zoologica in Naples in 1873. His work rarely receives any attention, but I believe he deserve better, if only for his unusual depiction of Northern Europeans in an Italian fresco.

Constantino Brumidi's frescoes in the State Capitol are a notable exception this side of the pond. Not incidentally, he died practically a pauper and his work might have gone completely unrecognized by history had it not been for the efforts of Myrtle Cheney Murdock. She became resident Brumidi expert in the Capitol building, and was responsible for a certain resurrection of interest in the artist, if not in the art of fresco itself.

And of course, there are still others who have orbited the outer reaches of the art of fresco and brought it all the way through to the twentieth century, such as - one of my favorite draughtsmen - Pietro Annigoni, who died at age 70 in 1988 three years after completing his largest fresco in the huge dome of the Monte Cassino monastery (having spent five years working on it).

Who's out there in the twenty-first century? Look for an upcoming post on some modern masters. Perhaps the age of fresco isn't quite dead and buried just yet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Children's Illustration Artist Profile: Inga Moore

 'It was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both paws and gasp, "O my! O my! O my!"'

That Inga Moore is an exceptional illustrator is no surprise. What surprised me when I received The Wind in the Willows was how consistently exceptional she is. I cannot begin to imagine the amount of time it took to conceive and create the wonderful illustrations. Clearly a labor of love, they are the most beautiful depictions I have ever seen of the English countryside, and that includes the classic EH Shepard illustrations of the same book.

How perfect are these for a full wall mural?!

Interviewed by The Guardian, Inga spoke of how she came to illustrate this classic:
Was it really a "long-harboured ambition", as it says on the dust jacket? "Not exactly," she says, almost guiltily. "I'd been in the pub with an old boyfriend and he'd suggested it, quite out of the blue. I was rather shocked. I might have thought about it, but only as an impossible dream. Shepard's are the definitive illustrations."

I'm always fascinated by an artist's working methods, and have had the opportunity to attempt to replicate some of my favorites through my work. In the same interview, she speaks of her process.
For each spread she photocopies her original drawings, then works on them with a mixture of pencil, ink, watercolour, crayon, pastel, even oil paint – "anything that works". With intricate textural variations and masses of engrossing detail, she achieves a realism that is unusual today, and those warm, underground kitchens have never been more invitingly portrayed. Landscape painting holds a particular fascination for Moore, and she has reproductions of impressionist paintings pinned up all over the place. "I'm hoping some of the genius will rub off on me."
Someday, I would love the opportunity to paint a mural in the manner of one of Ms. Moore's illustrations. Until then, I have to agree with Mole; O my!

Ms. Moore recently completed artwork for another Children's classic, The Secret Garden, which just as beautifully conceived and executed as her work for Wind In The Willows.

Here are a couple of unpublished illustrations I painted for a prospective book about an island out to sea that turns out to be a sleeping giant. In the meantime I pin some of her illustrations on my wall and to quote her, "hope that some of the genius will rub off on me".

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Grisaille Ornamentation

This is one of my favorite images. What a room! I've thought about creating hanging wall pieces looking like the panel show here. I think it'd look great in any setting, but those powdery blues and golds look particularly good here.

Following are a couple of outstanding images related to an earlier post regarding grisaille. These are a very rare find indeed! These original hand-painted fragments of wall-covering have all the information you would ever need in order to render your own grisaille ornamentation (including remnants of the old pounce pattern), and certainly warrant a close look. I've reproduced them large so that you may really see the brushwork in detail.

Pierre Finkelstein's excellent sourcebook, The Art of Faux (for which I had the honor of assisting him produce some of the samples), teaches us how to create a rosette in grisaille. This simple lesson is fundamental to all successive work in grottesca. Here's my version of his classic rosette, on faux Bottocino marble.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

'By Pullman Car to Venus!': Re-imagining Children's Murals

Everyone remembers a particularly treasured book from their childhood; one that is so much a part of you that you can't imagine your life without it. From A. A. Milne to Uderzo, our childhood memories are filled with images and stories that have shaped us in profound ways. That's why I consider the opportunity to paint a mural for a child such a gift; it's that chance to introduce an indelible image of creativity and imagination.

I've always thought that these early Science Fiction illustrations were excellent source material for murals. They have an inherent narrative that speaks of wonder and exploration, perfect for children. I think it's time for a change, so here are some ideas that may spark an alternative to the same old 'flowers and teddy bears' school of murals.

These images are from two books called 100 years of Science Fiction Illustration 1840-1940 (Frewin, Bloomsbury Books 1974), and Quand Nos Grand-Péres Imaginaient l'An 2000 (Racine, Editions Nathan, 1991).

There's something refreshing and uplifting about the energy of these works. Dirigibles, petticoats and umbrellas on a Nineteenth Century futuristic voyage to nowhere. Dwarfed by their fanciful creations (echoing the Industrial era in which they were created) there is yet something optimistic about these frail humans and their prognosis for our society.

Most of the work seen here is the work of one of the most popular book and journal illustrators of the Nineteenth Century, Albert Robida. Robida is to Jules Verne what Arthur C. Clarke is to Isaac Asimov:  He was an inventor who "proposed inventions integrated into everyday life, not creations of mad scientists, and he imagined the social developments that arose from them, often with accuracy: social advancement of women, mass tourism, pollution, etc." (Wiki). Indeed, his concept of the Telephonoscope seems remarkably prescient: a flat screen television display that delivered the latest news 24-hours a day, the latest plays, courses, and teleconferences.

Anyone interested in the direct lineage in thinking between Robida and Clarke need only read Clarke's fascinating book, Profiles of the Future, and it will become immediately apparent. But let's spare the children Robida's darker visions of germ warfare, and concentrate on the lighter stuff for now!

Here's a Flickr set I posted of his futuristic contraptions, and a separate blog post on the topic of flying machines that you may find useful as inspiration. Of course, there's always the flying machines website, and Matt Novak's excellent Paleo-future blog.

In a way it all seems quaint in retrospect, considering that the future these guys envisioned hasn't happened. We can't live forever, we can't even clone ourselves. The most we can do is Botox ourselves into a hideous mess or artificially inflate our pecs, remaking ourselves in the image of the biggest jock in high school. Why don't we have Utopia yet? I want names dammit!

On a more positive side-note: It's old news that we're botching this planet, but I think one nice thing we could do before we go is to come up with some sort of lightweight resin or polymer to replace all our disappearing glaciers. Make them look identical in every way to the original, only not wet or cold. That way the robots who take over Earth will have something nice to look at on vacation.

Bruce McCall, New Yorker illustrator and 'retro-futurist' made a fun presentation of his drawings at TED:

I have a dog-eared and well-worn copy of 1000 Tin Toys (apparently now titled 1000 Robots), by Taschen. It's a compendium of beautiful photographs of the coolest tin toys around; a lifetime of obsessive hoarding by Japanese collector Teruhisa Kitahara. Any one of these images looks great painted on a sheet of cut-out plywood and hung on the wall as a stand-alone piece, or as inspiration for a mural.

The last word goes to the great Franklin Booth: